Of all living authors of SF [at the time of publishing SF:TIE 1995, Disch was still living], or fantasy, or horror, Disch stands out for the high stature that other writers have always granted him, and – until recently – for the low profile that he has occupied in the minds of readers.
Only in the 1990’s, with the huge success of The M.D., has he become a bankable writer.
There are some reasons for this.
Disch began writing SF in 1962, publishing the first of many books, The Genocides, in 1965. A grim tale, it is not much loved by readers for pretty obvious reasons; but Mankind Under the Leash, the next book, was comparatively jolly, as its other titles show. In magazine form, it was called “White Fang Goes Dingo,” and it settled down as The Puppies of Terra.
At first glance, it seems pretty hilarious: humanity is enslaved by aliens, who like our looks and the way we dance; the hero decides to drive away his new masters by annoying them, the way a dog might annoy a busy executive. Eventually, they leave – as the last line puts it, “They couldn’t stand the barking.” Amusing and slight, one might think: a quick read and a grin. But few remember the title.
There are reasons.
Under its happy go-lucky surface, Mankind Under the Leash presents a searingly dismissive view of humanity’s accomplishments; its hero is a wimp with brains, and his victory consists of irritating a superior race until it abandons us. SF readers were not slow to understand Disch marched to a different drum from the writers they were used to; and they did not much warm to the new realism, nor to the high chill factor of his prose: he wrote as though you had to earn the right to enjoy him.
Camp Concentration, one of the peaks of Disch’s SF career, deepened and harshened the onslaught. The title is a pun: inmates in a military concentration camp are injected with a deadly wonder drug that vastly increases human intelligence and the capacity to concentrate on tasks, but at the cost of driving its users flamboyantly insane (and very camp) after a short period.
The analogy with syphilis has very often been (wrongly) treated by writers as a disease that first inspires, then kills.
Even grimmer, if possible, was 334, whose title is also playful: it is the address where the action takes place, and it represents – if written 3, 3, 4 – an arithmetical pattern that governs the characters, sequences, and geography.
There is no hero – Disch does not cotton to heroes – and no hope.
Less grim, but lacking any easy enjoyment, On Wings of Song returns to Disch’s abiding concern with the making of art. Many of his most interesting protagonists are artists – although most of them are failures – and the hero of this tale, set in a New York city at the brink of disintegration, longs for success in opera. His eventual triumph is deeply ambitious. In this novel, Disch may have been making a veiled statement about his own SF career; since its publication, he has concentrated in other genres.
Disch has experimented in various modes: Clara Reeve is an enormously complicated Gothic tale; The Brave Little Toaster (made into an animated film) and its sequel The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars are tales for wish children; and there are several highly respected volumes of poetry.
With The Business Man: A Tale of Terror, The M.D.: A Horror Story, and The Priest: A Gothic Romance, he finally reached a large audience. These horror fantasies unflinchingly plumb the dark underside of the human condition. The M.D., the best known, features a doctor given a magic staff (or caduceus) by the Devil; he makes a terrifying mess of the wishes granted by him by this tool.
It is a harsh message, but a necessary lesson: Disch’s entire career in a nutshell.
(Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia,JC)